Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

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In my previous post, I explained why Peer-to-Peer (P2P) communication tools like Whatsapp and iMessage fail in manufacturing and engineering businesses.

While there’s recently been a proliferation of business communication platforms – such as Slack, Hike and Flock – these tools can’t handle the complex communication needs of manufacturing or engineering businesses.

Here’s why…

Hope springs eternal

When I was running a manufacturing company, I tried to use technology to solve as many problems as I could, especially to improve business processes and communication.

“Have you tried Slack?” a techie once asked me at a social event.  I hadn’t heard of it, and quickly checked their website, only to discover this on their landing page:

Capture - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

“Amazing,” I said to myself, “If this tool can help put robots on Mars, surely it can solve the vastly less complex communication problems in my engineering business?”

I quickly downloaded the application and spent a few minutes fiddling with it.  I invited some of my team members and we recreated all our Whatsapp groups as channels.

It didn’t take long for our enthusiasm to dwindle. Within a few hours, I was like a disappointed child who’d been given a defective Christmas present.

“Is that it?!” my production head pointedly said.  We moved back to Whatsapp for internal communication a few days later.

The Penny Drops

p02wmsmz - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

The truth is, I just hadn’t understood enterprise chat tools like Slack, or its subsequent clones (eg Microsoft Teams, Flock, Hike etc).  They didn’t seem appreciably different to Whatsapp, iMessage or other P2P communication tools.

While they did appear to solve some of the email and security problems of P2P messaging platforms, they fell woefully short of providing any meaningful structure to conversations, much less any conversational analytics.

“Slack is just an expensive Whataspp,” another friend in manufacturing would always say, confirming I wasn’t the only one who was confused by the value these tools were meant to deliver.

In fact, I eventually only began to understand the benefits of these enterprise chat tools when we started developing software at Unifize.

It quickly became clear that they enable agile processes. They work well for small (“two-pizza”) teams.  They are loosely structured information dumps/repositories. They reduce email.  They enable rapid collaboration and traceability within small teams. They allow you to own your communication data.

All noble qualities for enterprise communication.

So, surely this addresses all the root causes of communication problems in manufacturing and engineering businesses, and the issues with Whatsapp and iMessage?

If that was the case, wouldn’t we expect to see every manufacturing or engineering company around the world using Slack?

At Unifize, during our interviews of over 50 companies in four countries, we found exactly one architecture firm and one product design company using Slack.

In the first instance, it was because the company needed a communication tool to integrate with Trello for their project management.  In the second, the company was making marine hardware and software. Unsurprisingly, it was the (agile) software team that was using Slack.  The rest of the company wouldn’t touch it.

To the uninitiated (like some software engineers and venture capitalists), it may appear that the manufacturing and engineering segments are just technological laggards.

Surely, it’s because these industries just don’t “get it”? They’ll come around in a few years, when they see the light…

In fact, manufacturing and non-software engineering businesses depend on incremental process improvements for their survival.

For this reason, it was manufacturers that pioneered business process tools (eg ERP) and management concepts (eg Lean) that drive the world today.

So why aren’t these companies flocking to Slack [terrible pun intended] and others to solve their communication problems?

Another dancing elephant

dancing elephants - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

The fact is that existing enterprise chat tools solve different communication problems to those faced by manufacturing and engineering companies.  Specifically, they solve communication problems for small teams running iterative, undefined and flexible (ie agile) processes. 

At a basic level, these tools enable to you to create channels or groups, which can be used in a similar was to the as the cross functional teams and task forces enabled by P2P tools like  Whatsapp and iMessage.

These channels enable you to get people into once place to discuss a particular subject or theme.  They exist in perpetuity, with members slowly changing over time based on the organisation structure of the company.  

You can also do a few other things, like send direct messages to team members, sprinkled liberally with hashtags and an infinite number of keyboard shortcuts that developers love (and everyone else hates). 

However, if you were to try and use these tools for more complex, cross-functional collaboration, you’d quickly run into a problem.  

For example, this is how you’d need to set up an existing enterprise communication tool to handle the customer inquiries function of a manufacturing or engineering business:

Capture 5 - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

Anyone who’s worked in a manufacturing or engineering company can probably see where the above example would break down immediately for them:  there are just too many inquiries and participants for one channel to be able to communicate meaningfully. 

In the above customer inquiry example, the channel structure would need to look like this:

Capture 3 - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

Specifically, just to handle three inquiries, a company following the above process needs to have nine separate conversations, each with different goals/objectives and different people.

In practice, there may be many more and processes and participants, meaning many more conversations than we have represented above.  Furthermore, if the customer changes any requirements after sending a given inquiry, all the conversations need to be repeated.

As with P2P tools such as Whatsapp and iMessage, the fact is that existing enterprise chat applications weren’t designed to be used in manufacturing and engineering environments.

Perhaps they could be made to work by integrating them with some other system?

Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we...integrate enterprise chat with other tools?

spaghetti code 1024x498 - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

At first glance, it might appear that the inquiry example in the section above is just a project. 

Couldn’t we then just integrate an enterprise chat platform with a project management or workflow automation tool like Jira, Asana, Wrike, Basecamp, Microsoft Projects, or even an ERP / CRM / PLM? Wouldn’t this provide the best of both worlds by enabling both business processes and  communication?

Sadly, this is unlikely to work in cross-functional, collaborative environments like manufacturing and engineering.

First and foremost, by integrating enterprise chat with a project management or workflow automation tool, you cannot map each stage of a project to a different conversation with a different team. The integration requires you to map a series of projects or sub-projects to a single channel for all process stages, as shown in the following diagram:

Capture 4 - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

As you can see, the integration doesn’t solve the problem of needing to handle multiple separate conversations with different teams to achieve a single objective.

If you need to handle dozens or hundreds of inquiries across multiple internal and external teams, it is impossible to manage the communication when all the conversations relating to a specific project are dumped into a single channel.

Integrating a project management tool with enterprise chat also results in the following additional problems:

  • You need to manage (and pay for) at least two systems.
  • You need to be very comfortable with hashtags and other developer shortcuts in a chat environment if you want to get the benefits of the integration.
  • You’ll be unable to implement both ad hoc and pre-defined communication processes.
  • You won’t be able to trace the link between conversations and their resulting decisions and actions

Ultimately, you lose the benefits of having your communication all in one place, meaning you are unable to solve the unstructured data problem , the communication waste problem and can therefore only partially solve the email problem and compliance problem.

Everything is a conversation

HiRes xpG3eDq 1024x443 - Why Slack, Flock, Hike etc fall short for manufacturing and supply chain businesses

At a very basic level, conversations in manufacturing and engineering environments aren’t continuous flows of information, such as those enabled by channel-based enterprise chat applications, or even P2P chat applications like Whatsapp and Slack.

Conversations in these environments are about getting things done.

They start and they end when their objective is achieved. They involve different or rapidly changing groups of people. Some conversations are predictable and others may result in any number of subsequent conversations, each of which needs to be linked back to its origin and the overall business objective.

Moreover, you can’t solve this problem by integrating Slack and project management or ERP/CRM/PLM tools because this only subordinates communication in favour of the business (or project) process.

What’s needed is a communication system that drives the business process, not the other way around…

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